The Nashville Statement, a largely unobjectionable assertion of classic Christian teaching on sex and gender, has invited criticism from predictable quarters. Salon denounced the document as “bigotry-filled,” while Eliel Cruz, founder of Faithfully LGBT, raged in the New York Times about the “devastating consequences” of the “hateful beliefs” it embodies.
Unusually, the statement has also been criticized by some conservative Christians. Ryan Anderson fears that “evangelical leaders either don't know what the word chastity means or don't defend its requirements in marriage.” Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy argues that the document criticizes the “spirit of the age” while failing to recognize that many evangelical leaders are led by this same spirit when dealing with almost any issue other than homosexuality.
But perhaps the most unusual thing about the Nashville Statement is that it fails to include any clear, unambiguous explanation of why homosexuality should be opposed.
The authors note (Article 9) that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality.” But what is it about homosexuality that makes it immoral? Is homosexual conduct wrong because the Bible says so, or are the biblical prohibitions a nod to homosexuality’s intrinsic unnaturalness? Is homosexual sex wrong because God arbitrarily defines marriage as heterosexual, or does Christian teaching on marriage reflect a divinely ordained telos in the distinction of the sexes? The statement correctly indicates what Christians believe, but it fails to explain why.
Answering these questions need not involve tedious theological digression. In fact, the statement’s reticence on homosexuality is all the more puzzling, given its pithy teaching on transgenderism. Article 5 notes that “differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.” That is true. But “differences between male and female reproductive structures” are integral not only to sexual “self-conception,” but also to sexual behavior (hence the wrongness of homosexual intercourse).
Many evangelical leaders in recent decades have tolerated or endorsed lifestyle choices (such as divorce and remarriage) and sexual practices (such as heterosexual sodomy) that were condemned by the near-unanimous testimony of Christians prior to the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the reason the statement fails to explain its opposition to homosexuality is that some evangelicals, at least, are unwilling to affirm unambiguously that “differences between male and female reproductive structures” are a controlling norm for sexual behavior, as Christians historically have understood.
For instance, William Cutrer teaches that Scripture places “no limitations” on “oral, anal, and manual sex,” and that in the alleged absence of such limits, couples should simply ask, “What is loving?” Cutrer writes that “God placed the nerve endings” in the human body to “bring a high degree of pleasure” to those who indulge in buggery. And Cutrer is by no means an outlier in evangelical circles.
Nashville’s signatories are right to assert that endorsing homosexuality “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness” (Article 10). But, again, this requires explanation.
The problem with the Nashville Statement is therefore not (as some claim) that it fails to make explicit mention of divorce, pornography, contraception, heterosexual sodomy, and the like. There is no reason why a statement on homosexuality and transgenderism need mention these things. The problem is that, having accepted the legitimacy of many of these things, evangelical leaders have stripped ethicists within their communities of the conceptual tools necessary to explain why Christians oppose homosexuality, rather than merely assert that they do.
As Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George argue in their much-read book What Is Marriage?, the traditional view of marriage is distinguished in part by its explanatory power. Only when we understand that marriage involves the union of opposite sexes can we adequately explain important norms surrounding marital exclusivity and fidelity, and explain why most people still think marriage has an important connection with family formation and childrearing. The argument also works in reverse. Namely, when Christians view “fidelity” within marriage as encompassing multiple spouses one after the other, and when procreative activity is a rare interruption in a marital life of ordinarily contracepted (and even, per Cutrer, sodomitical) relations, we lose the ability to explain why male-female complementarity is constitutive of what marriage is.
Augustine, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Aquinas, as well as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and almost every notable Christian teacher prior to the 1920s, insofar as they comment on sexual ethics, affirm the controlling function of the procreative norm in sexual matters. There is room for good-natured ecumenical debate among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologians about precisely where the boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior lie, especially in hard cases. But the position taken by many evangelical leaders—confining the definition of orthodoxy solely to opposing homosexuality and premarital sex, and embracing diversity on almost every other point of sexual ethics—cannot be reconciled with any historic form of Christianity.
Surveys show young evangelicals embracing gay marriage at a rate only slightly lower than people with no religious affiliation. Perhaps this is because the pro-gay teachings of liberal evangelicals like Matthew Vines are simply more rigorously applied versions of standard conservative evangelical approaches to sexual ethics. The Nashville Statement’s doctrinal affirmations are technically correct, in the way that a house built on sand might be architecturally correct. Without solid moral theology to ground such affirmations, Christianity cannot withstand the challenges contemporary Western culture poses to orthodoxy in sexual matters. If the bare-bones theology that lies behind the Nashville Statement is the front-line battle plan for Christianity’s defense against the onslaught of the sexual revolution, then we should prepare for the trenches to be overrun.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly claimed that Denny Burk, president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which instigated the Nashville Statement, had declined to condemn sodomy within heterosexual marriage. The opposite is the case. We apologize for the error.
Aaron Taylor is a research student in theology at Oxford University.